Your beautiful idea means nothing to me

This one is for all the non-technical co-founders out there and their beautiful ideas.  I won’t sign your NDA.

I’m a technical cofounder looking for a gig.  This is no secret.  I hang out on cofounderslab (Hi Shahab!) and FounderDating and talk to lots of non-technical cofounders.  Great people, I haven’t met one I didn’t like yet. However, a small but energetic minority of these guys insist that I sign an NDA before we talk.  I refuse, but I try to do it nicely. Here’s what I say.

ios-nda1My perspective on NDAs is a lot like Brad Felds.  I talk to a lot of people about a lot of things and literally can’t have an ever-growing paper tail of NDAs (i.e. contractual obligations) dragging behind me for the rest of my life, pretending to restrict what I can and can’t say to people.  Back in 2009 I signed an NDA when I was talking to a web analytics company about a job.  Literally the next five guys I talked to were doing web analytics.  If I took the NDA seriously I couldn’t have had coffee with those guys.  I realized that stupid NDA was working like a non-compete.  I had traded my ability to speak openly about web analytics for a 10% chance of working for this one company.  I’d given something valuable and gotten nothing in return.  It’s the last one I ever signed or ever will, at least in that situation.

If we’ve gotten to the point where you want my JR on an NDA we can do one of two things: skip the NDA and go our separate ways, or have a discussion where the special sauce (i.e. the how) is elided.  I’ve done that with a handful of guys – have the discussion but be really oblique about the special sauce.  The problem for them is that they’re trying to recruit me, but they can’t prove how smart they are, or how wonderful the opportunity is.  And I can’t prove how smart I am because we’re talking around the actual thing.  I wind up underwhelmed and they wind up feeling like they haven’t solved the NDA problem.

unicornNot long ago I was trying to recruit a data scientist and wonder of wonders I found one.  An honest to God, freshly minted PhD in Stats.   He’s standing just out of the picture to the right of the unicorn.  I cropped him out so you won’t steal him.  Anyways … how many shots at a good data scientist am I going to get?  If I scare this one away by demanding an NDA will I see another any time soon?  No.  I need him more than he needs me.  Once I get going and people are coming to me for jobs?  Shoe’s on the other foot brother and you’re signing a reception desk NDA or my hot receptionist is calling security.  Bet on it.  But at that point in time, Mr. Data held all the cards,we both knew it and there was no point arguing about it.

But by far the best reason not to NDA or to play the guessing game with guys like Mr. Data is one that none of you business guys are willing to hear, so close your ears now.  Get over yourself, your idea’s not that great.  There’s zero chance Mr. Data is going to steal it.  That doesn’t mean it won’t make money, just that the money will come from you and Mr. Data working your butts off, not from the inherent beauty of the idea itself.

Bottom line? Be careful about what you say and who you say it to, but you have to take risks.  Do what you have to, use the idea as leverage when you need it, use your other leverage to protect the idea when you can.  Just be firm and consistent in discussions with any one person and don’t throw it open for discussion.  If you’ve decided not to expose special sauce in this discussion with this guy, then don’t do it, and don’t get into a big discussion about why you should or shouldn’t because he won’t be convinced and you’ll look like a dope.  If you change your mind in the middle, schedule a followup.  Waffling makes you look like an amateur.

Take a look at VC blogs like fred wilson brad feld ben horowitz marc andreesenmark suster.  They all say that ideas are like armpits, everyone has two and most of them stink.  Sometimes they’ll analogize a different, singular part of the anatomy.  They also say that they bet on teams, not ideas.  Maybe that’s just self-interested VC bullshit.  Or maybe it’s a fact that most founders overvalue their ideas, overrate their ability to “move the ball” alone and underestimate how much time and effort it takes to execute on an idea.  And guess what?  You are like most founders.  Personally, I’ve stopped thinking I’m a smart guy (no it wasn’t a stretch). If I’m not a smart guy, then any idea I’ve had, someone else has already had it.  If they’ve had it and haven’t made a business of it – it’s either a bad idea or they screwed it up and left an opportunity.

So tell me your idea and let’s see if there’s a deal to be made.  Or not.  That’s cool too.  Just leave the NDA out of it.

About JR
Software guy, startup guy, non-fiction glutton, south shore inhabitant

One Response to Your beautiful idea means nothing to me

  1. Pingback: How to Get a Developer to Build Your Healthcare App | Pointy-Haired Startup

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